Study indicates possiblity for clergy reintegration following sexual misconduct in Springfield, IL Diocese

.- A new report, issued by a special panel to the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois, says priests who have engaged in grave sexual misconduct, excluding misconduct with minors, but who have “admitted their failings, have undergone treatment, and are actively engaged in aftercare may be considered to return to ministry.”

The diocese’s Special Panel of Clergy Misconduct submitted its eight-page report to diocesan officials this month. It is one of the diocese’s many efforts to clean house after a long-running sex scandal involving clergy, which came to light nearly seven years ago.

The report follows an 18-month investigation that revealed serious, non-paedophilic sexual misconduct by the former bishop and a small number of local priests.

The investigation, however, also confirmed that the overwhelming majority of priests in the diocese are devoted, upstanding, and honest. The diocese has a separate process for addressing allegations of misconduct against minors, the panel said.

Specifically, the inquiry revealed that former Bishop Daniel Ryan engaged in improper sexual conduct — namely multiple homosexual relationships with male prostitutes and other priests or deacons — and used his office to conceal his activities. His conduct created a culture of secrecy in the diocese, discouraging faithful priests from coming forward with information.

He took early retirement in 1999 at age 70, and was succeeded by Bishop George Lucas. But this did not prevent sexual scandals from erupting again. In 2004, Msgr. Eugene Costa, the chancellor, was involved in sexual misconduct. Msgr. Costa has been removed from public ministry and is undergoing psychological treatment. Bishop Lucas is currently taking the necessary steps to bar him from future public ministry

Allegations of sexual misconduct were also made against Bishop Lucas but these have since been proven false.

The independent investigation, which began in February 2005, was conducted by Bill Roberts of Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP, former U.S. Attorney for the Central District of Illinois and States Attorney for Sangamon County.

A five-member special panel reviewed the results of the investigation and made more than a dozen recommendations in five areas.

Seven of these recommendations regard actions in the case of future charges of misconduct. Among them, the panel said all credible allegations of criminal behavior must be immediately reported to civil authorities. Evidence of non-criminal misconduct should be addressed immediately according to Canon Law “to ensure the safety of all persons, to protect the integrity of the Church…, to assist those who are harmed, and to hold accountable those accused.”

In the case of priests who engaged in misconduct, the panel said they may return to public ministry “provided there is clear and convincing evidence that person has acknowledged wrongdoing, repented and is sufficiently in recovery so as not to present a threat to the spiritual, psychological, or physical well-being of himself or others.”

These priests should be reintegrated openly, and parishioners “should be informed of the misconduct, restitution and remedy.”

The panel recommended that it remain intact and periodically review the cases of those who returned to ministry to offer continued close supervision.

Investigations also revealed wrongdoings in other areas. As a result, the panel deems that a change in financial oversight is necessary after evidence of improper financial activities were reported. In accordance with canon law, all parishes should have finance councils, and evidence of embezzlement or theft should immediately be reported to civil authorities.

Given reports of computer and Internet use to access inappropriate websites, the diocese should publish a strong policy regulating the used of church-owned equipment, and random computer audits should be conducted, the panel said.

Investigations found that church members were wary about reporting information because those who came forward in the past were either penalized or ignored. The panel therefore recommended that an independent investigator should also be retained to allow people with concerns about questionable conduct to relate their information.

Furthermore, the diocese should improve its screening measures for candidates to the priesthood. Screening should occur prior to entering the seminary and once again prior to ordination, in addition to continuous monitoring throughout the formation process, the panel said.

The panel also expressed particular concern about impact of past misconduct on the local church.

The actions of former Bishop Ryan, who no longer resides in the diocese nor participates in public ministry, led some local Catholics to abandon their faith, the panel noted.

The panel also expressed its concern about a perception in the diocese that Bishop Lucas “rewarded those who protected Bishop Ryan by granting them the title ‘Monsignor’ in 2003.”

While the recommendations were made by the vicar general, Msgr. John Renken, the bishop “could have been more thorough in researching the character of some of those recommended,” the panel said.

Still, the report acknowledges that “both clergy and laity are now starting to sense positive change” since the appointment of Bishop Lucas, who commissioned the independent investigator and set up the five-member panel.

“The bishop has demonstrated a willingness to rely upon Canon Law to repair scandal, restore justice and reform the offender,” the report reads.

“This recommended system of vigilant oversight will strengthen the credibility of the Church and thereby lead others to a deeper participation in its mission,” it concludes.